The line was inconsistent at times last season. While there were times they moved people off the ball better, there were also times they just did not get it done. One reason was injuries.
Two senior starters missed significant time the first half of ‘03. Guard Billy Knotts broke a thumb before the opener and didn't see action until Oregon. Center Mike Shelford pinched a nerve in the opening moments against New Mexico; He didn't return until Week 9.
George Yarno (CF.C/Gunderson)
Also a factor: The o-line struggled at times to implement line coach George Yarno's new system in '03. Having now had a year-plus under the 13-year pro and former Cougar standout, there is reason to believe WSU will, more consistently, be better up front. Terminology will be more readily understood and the continuity will be better, says Levy.
There is additional evidence..
The projected starters include a player who turned in such an exceptional performance during Spring Ball, coach Bill Doba said he could be one of the best in the Pac-10 at his position in ‘04.
The understated Doba is not exactly known for exaggerated praise.
"Nick Mihlhauser had a great spring. I think he could be one of the best centers in the conference next year. He has really improved this spring," said Doba.
Center, rather than guard, may be a more natural fit for the versatile Mihlhauser. The 6-3, 287-pound junior was the leading candidate to man the middle headed into '03 — but Shelford made huge strides in Fall camp to earn the No. 1 spot.
Rather than hang his head, Mihlhauser worked his tail off. After the nerve started firing and Shelford returned to the starting lineup, Mihlhauser then passed Knotts on the depth chart. Said Doba at the time of Mihlhauser assuming the No. 1 guard position; "He's just playing better right now. The best players are going to play."
THE OFFENSIVE GUARD position will be one to watch headed into Fall Camp.
"Riley Fitt-Chappell is the guy at right guard and the other guard is a toss-up between Patrick Afif and Bobby Byrd. That is a concern of ours," said Doba after Spring Ball.
With Knotts and Josh Parrish having graduated, and Mihlhauser at center, both guard spots will be manned by a new No. 1 on the depth chart. But that doesn't equate to inexperience.
Fitt-Chappell played very well as a redshirt freshman in '02, ably filling in and starting five games that year. Fitt-Chappell also logged four starts last season, but his best game was perhaps in the come-from-behind victory over Oregon State.
With tackle Sam Lightbody already out, replacements Charles Harris and then Afif both got dinged up as well. Yarno decided to put Fitt-Chappell in at right tackle—despite the fact he had practiced all week at center. It was an instinct that proved dead-on.
OSU's pass rush, causing problems much of the game, had tallied five sacks through three quarters. In the fourth, with the Cougs trailing by 12, enter Fitt-Chappell. The Beavers didn't get to the quarterback the rest of the night.
"..All of a sudden, we got protection," said Levenseller at the time.
Bobby Byrd (CF.C/Gunderson)
Afif, for his part, saw action in ten games last year. This will be the senior's second year out of junior college, a year that often sees a player excel, as if a light turns on and everything clicks into place.
"Offensively, we should be a pretty experienced ballclub," says Doba.
THE SENIOR TACKLES are the strength of this line; LT Calvin Armstrong being the lynchpin. An All-Pac-10 selection as a sophomore and an honorable mention in '03, Armstrong is on the Lombardi Award watchlist heading into this season and will again be an All-America candidate.
Given his career at WSU, Armstrong can at times overshadow talent next to him on the line; case in point the right tackle, Sam Lightbody.
Lightbody, anything but at 6-9 and 320-pounds, might be on the verge of a special year. This offseason, he's been working on improving his upper body strength.. The collisions on the right side should be fun to watch.
BEYOND THE FRONT FIVE, tight end is deep.. just like last season.
"The tight end position is solid with Troy Bienemann, Cody Boyd, and Jesse Taylor," said Doba. This group measures up well against any team's. But the Cougs are also striving for improved run blocking here. With talent like Boyd and Bienemann, Levy has said he wouldn't mind seeing both of them on the field at times this year.
Taylor was a star fullback out of high school but has been limited by injuries his first two seasons. A healthy JT should be a boon to the Cougs' running game. Another player figuring in the mix is Sean O'Connor. But just where to look for him on the line is still in question.
"We are pleased with Sean. We might even see him jump into a receiver's number and play a little tight end like he did last year," Doba said. "He can play center, guard, and tight end."
Provided he doesn't claim a starting spot in Fall Camp, O'Connor might be that first option off the bench; a super sub. In that role late last year, O'Connor more than held his own against All-American and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Dave Ball of UCLA.
"Sean is kind-of like the sixth man in basketball," Yarno said.
Sam Lightbody (CF.C)
OFFENSIVELY, A GOAL of Levenseller's is to be tougher across the board. The line figures prominently there—they'll be counted upon to carry the load while a young defense comes of age in the early going next year.
"The makings are there," says Levy.
Of that—given the performance of Armstrong, Lightbody and Mihlhauser in the season finale against Texas—there is no doubt.